9 april-1 august 2021
Organiza: Ministerio de Cultura y Deporte, Acción Cultural Española AC/E, Museo Arqueológico Nacional MAN.
Colabora: Bolsas y Mercados Españoles y Asociación de Protectores y Amigos del Museo Arqueológico Nacional
Comisarios: Eduardo Galán, Ruth Maicas y Juan Antonio Martos
Horario de visita
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The year 2021 marks the 100th anniversary of the world’s first exhibition on prehistoric rock art, which took place in Spain.
Perhaps not all centenaries are worth remembering or celebrating, but the 1921 Spanish Prehistoric Art Exhibition was undoubtedly a major milestone that paved the way for the now universal recognition of what can be considered humanity’s earliest artistic expressions. The value of this legacy has been acknowledged by the UNESCO, with a long list of protected sites across the globe: from Norway to Tanzania, Brazil to Australia, literally thousands of rock art sites now constitute one of the most characteristic world heritage categories.
Spain is one of the countries with the largest number of prehistoric art sites recognised by the UNESCO: from the pioneering declaration of the Cave of Altamira (1985), later extended to many other caves with Palaeolithic art in northern Spain (2008), the staggering list of sites along the Mediterranean arc with rock shelters containing schematic and Mediterranean Basin or Levantine art (1998), and the cross-border declaration of the Côa Valley in Portugal (1998) and the area of Siega Verde in Salamanca (2010), to the very recent listing of Risco Caido and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria Cultural Landscape (2019).
And, to a large extent, it all began a century ago when prehistoric art, hitherto confined to a small circle of experts, was presented to the general public for the first time in an exhibition at the former Museum of Modern Art, in the building now shared by the National Library and the National Archaeological Museum, featuring the work that two groups of researchers had been doing in different regions of Spain for nearly twenty years. This international effort was initiated by a French team, financed by the Prince of Monaco via the Institut de Paléontologie Humaine [Institute of Human Palaeontology], established in Paris, and involved world renowned names like Emile Cartailhac and Abbé Henri Breuil, who were soon joined by the young but wise German archaeologist Hugo Obermaier. Spain soon had its first generation of prehistoric art scholars, who formed the Comisión de Investigaciones Paleontológicas y Prehistóricas [Commission for Palaeontological and Prehistoric Research], created under the auspices of Santiago Ramón y Cajal as chairman of the Junta para Ampliación de Estudios [Council for Expanded Studies] and supported and chaired by the Marquis of Cerralbo. Eduardo Hernández Pacheco, the Count of La Vega del Sella, Juan Cabré and others were associated with this commission.
Thanks to the synergy between these two research institutions, and with the assistance of the Sociedad Española de Amigos del Arte [Spanish Society of Art Friends], chaired by Princess Isabel de Borbón, to which a sizeable proportion of Spain's social and cultural elite belonged at the time, they devised and produced an exhibition as novel as it was far removed from the typical interests of the fine and decorative arts world.
This show commemorates that seminal event for the study of prehistoric rock art and the appreciation of the origins of art in general, but it also reveals how far we have come since then and the road that lies before us, reflecting on how we can integrate art in the museum’s exhibition narrative and help new generations of visitors understand its value and significance.